The Passion Equation: Why some think exploiting culture workers is okay

Study finds people think it’s acceptable to exploit those who are passionate about a job

This isn’t solely a question for the arts: across the board we need to remove the justification, and just look at the exploitation. Photograph: Getty Images/File photo

This isn’t solely a question for the arts: across the board we need to remove the justification, and just look at the exploitation. Photograph: Getty Images/File photo

 

Passionate about your work? Find something you love to do, then find someone to pay you to do it: growing up, I was encouraged to think that way. After all, our working world shapes our lives – so why do something you’re not passionate about?

More recently, conversations with colleagues, particularly those in the arts, are revealing increasing levels of stress at the sheer scale of what is being demanded of them. This has nothing to do with the strains of social media, or the 24-hour lifestyle unleashed by the internet. Instead, as a new study from a team at Duke University, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reveals: people see it as acceptable to exploit those who are passionate about what they do.

The study, snappily titled Understanding Contemporary Forms of Exploitation: Attributes of Passion Serve to Legitimize the Poor Treatment of Workers, could have been written with the typical artist, performer, writer, creative technician, arts administrator or any other cultural employee in mind. Alongside the “work for free, it’ll look good on your CV” mantra that is rife in the exposure and gig economies, there is the core issue of the deeper running-down of the arts that has been going on since the recession.

Doing something you love is a key part of wellbeing; but so, too, is having time to spend with family and friends

The “doing more for less” strategy had its place when the economy crashed, and people were desperately trying to keep venues open, and keep the show on the road. And yet, as other sectors have recovered, the arts economy is being held artificially low. Rates of pay haven’t increased, as the cost of living continues to climb and, anecdotally, some arts workers are being asked by funders to justify their salaries, in a way that wouldn’t be required, at that level of remuneration, in any other industry. So why is it considered not only acceptable, but entirely appropriate in the arts?

The team at Duke conducted eight studies, with more than 2,400 participants. In one, respondents rated it more legitimate to exploit workers in jobs traditionally associated with passion. These included artist and social worker, rather than, say, cashier or debt collector. It also clearly extends to other careers where nurturing is seen as part of the job description, such as teacher and nurse. In another of the studies, participants, who were told an artist was very passionate about their job, said that it was more appropriate for the boss to exploit them, than a colleague who, they were told, wasn’t so emotionally invested.

Job description

The researchers also found that people who are exploited in their jobs (including being asked to work far beyond a job description, work for longer hours, give up on family time, experience verbal abuse, have unreasonable deadlines) are more likely to be seen as passionate about their work.

Doing something you love is a key part of wellbeing; but so, too, is having time to spend with family and friends, being (as far as is possible) free of financial concerns, being able to lay down money for your children’s futures, and indulge in other passions. Somehow, we have internalised the belief that one forfeits the other, and we have done it to the extent those who are lucky enough to be passionate about our work also self-exploit, in the grateful belief that this is an exceptional circumstance.

Looking for reasons, the Duke team found that passion can be used as a balancing rationale against the inherent injustice of exploitation. As one of the authors, Prof Aaron Kay, explained: “I have found that when faced with massive disparities between rich and poor, people can downplay injustice by telling themselves that wealth brings its own set of problems . . . In the case of working employees harder for no extra pay, or asking them to do demeaning work or work outside their job description, believing this is fair because these workers are indulging their passions may be a similar means of justification.”

“Our research is not anti-passion,” says another of the authors, Jay Kim. “There is excellent evidence that passionate workers benefit in many ways. It’s simply a warning that we should not let the current cultural emphasis on finding passion in our work be co-opted by the human tendency to legitimise or ignore exploitation.”

During the recession, the arts were pared back to the bone, and survived. Add the passion equation and it seems that those working in the arts have unintentionally colluded in backing the sector into a exploitative cul-de-sac. We need to get back to the real costs of putting on a play, mounting an exhibition, making music, maintaining opportunities for writers to create a literature to be proud of. This isn’t solely a question for the arts: across the board we need to remove the justification, and just look at the exploitation.

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